Oftentimes, the farmers market season is so busy and overwhelming that it’s virtually impossible to slow down and make improvements or fix inefficient processes. It’s easy to get stuck performing a task in a manner that you know isn’t the best way but is getting the job done; changing it would take valuable time that you just don’t have. Or perhaps you noticed a hole in your product variety but it was too late in the season—or you were flat-out too tired—to add another crop. Here are some steps you can take to make sure your operation is a well-oiled machine during your next market-garden season.
1. Evaluate Your Work Flow
Think back to planting, growing, harvesting and distributing. Which steps along the way were the most burdensome and time-consuming? What did you least enjoy doing and how can you make that aspect of the job easier on yourself? Perhaps new crates for distribution or hand tools for harvesting would make a world of difference in your day-to-day, or maybe one big investment, such as a new tractor or tiller, could take your farm operation to the next level.
Whether it’s a complete overhaul or a minor tweak, making changes in the way you work can vastly improve your quality of life. As you head into next season, evaluate each aspect of what you do on your farm. Don’t be afraid to change.
2. Scale Up Your Operation
Once you’ve evaluated, think about opportunities to scale up. This could mean growing more of certain crops or even trying to attend more markets during the coming year. Were you always selling out of tomatoes? Maybe now is the time to start planning a greenhouse expansion for more tomato starts.
At my markets, okra sells out very fast and demand seems to be growing. Did you notice something similar at your markets that you could expand into? If you only did a weekend market, maybe there’s a Tuesday or Wednesday market you could attend that would help split up the week and spread your harvesting more evenly.
3. Make Value-Added Products
A natural growth area is value-added products. If you’re growing all or most of your raw materials, try adding items such as homemade salsa, breads, jams or dried herbs to your product offering. (Just remember to check your local and state laws and regulations before bringing value-added products to market.)
Value-added products typically bring in a higher margin and will undoubtedly spruce up your market display and attract new customers. While many market shoppers are seeking the ingredients to make their own food at home, there’s always demand for premade foods from local farmers. Value-added products are also a great way to develop your brand and send customers home with a jar or a box that has your farm’s logo on it.
4. Collaborate With Other Farmers
Is there a local artisan making something that would fit perfectly into your display? Most farmers markets allow a certain percentage of sales to come from reselling products produced by other farmers. If you are focused on produce, try bringing in some fruit to improve your product selection. Locally made goods such as bug sprays, handspun yarns, natural soaps and other products are always a hit. Collaborating with other local producers can diversify your table and add another stream of income at the same time.
5. Find New Sales Opportunities
If you only sold at markets last season, would reaching out to restaurants or small, local grocery stores be another possible outlet for your produce? Now that your brand is established, maybe you’re in a position to open up a small shop on your own farm to bring the customers to you? Finding new and creative ways to reach additional customers can diversify your sources of revenue and reduce your business risk as well. Now a rainy day at the market doesn’t have to mean a slow sales week.
6. Market Your Market
A key focus during your second year should be further developing your brand and making sure consumers know who you are and what you stand for. If you don’t have a website, Facebook page or Instagram account, start one!
These are cheap, and often free, ways to share your farm and your values with customers that are yearning to share in your daily experience. Try taking out small ads in local food journals and magazines. Or reach out to local food bloggers, and ask if you can write a guest column. Engaging the audience around you helps build customer loyalty and relationships that can last a lifetime.
7. Upgrade Your Market Display
Finally, take a step back at the wear and tear you put on your display after the season, and make repairs or buy new equipment altogether. My farm’s display tends to change every year as my wife and I learn and grow. We love to think about how our products can be placed in a more appealing manner and what we can incorporate from the farm to spice up the display and help share part of our day with the market goers. Some examples of ways to improve your booth’s ambiance and create a welcoming feel for your patrons include photos of your farm, display materials made from wood you harvested or dried herbs hanging near your farm sign.
Take these slow winter days to think about how the next season can be even better than the last. Now is the time to start seeking out the answers and developing a plan of attack for next year. Once springtime returns, you won’t have a chance to sit back and evaluate again until next winter!
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Hobby Farms.